Monday, January 14, 2013

“Walking” in Their Footsteps

[This was supposed to have been posted two days ago, and I thought it had. I just discovered that there had been some sort of technical error and it didn't go up, so here's attempt #2.]

When I stepped into my living room this morning, the front window was shining white with just that quality of light that promised wonders on the other side of the blinds. Sure enough, when the blinds parted they revealed a world glistening with deep frost. Without a second thought, I threw on yesterday’s clothes, donned a hat for the double purpose of warmth and hiding my unbrushed hair, grabbed my camera, and was out the door. Apart from genealogy, one of my greatest loves is hiking—and its milder urban cousin “going for a walk”—and any sort of pedestrian travel is always made more pleasant by beautiful scenery, whether it be jagged peaks and sprawling valleys or the small, delicate wonder of a frosty cobweb.

As I walked, my thoughts wandered, as thoughts will, and I began to imagine myself walking along the seawall near the Creeksea Ferry or down the road from Hachiville to the Hermitage, as my ancestors might have done. I wondered how the January days my great-grandmother Cora encountered in Kansas compared to this one, and if she had the leisure to occasionally indulge in such solitary walks—or the desire to do so.

When a large squirrel, all fattened up for the winter, stood up on his hind legs and gazed at me, apparently thinking that I may have some crumbs of bread to share, I wondered about the appearance of squirrels in eastern Essex. Squirrels are, to me, a great indicator of place. Even just within Oregon, you see different kinds of squirrels in different areas. For instance, I know I’ve traveled south when I see one of those big, bristly gray squirrels, or that I’m near the mountains when I see a ground squirrel that looks like a big chipmunk. But I have never been to England, and the squirrels there are as yet a mystery to me.

Eventually it dawned on me that modern technology has given us the ability to walk, as it were, on the other side of the globe. Really, it was my cousin who started me on this train of thought. He emailed me last month, telling me where to look on Google maps to see what’s left of the ferry landing. Yes, I know that Google maps and its street view feature have been around for years, but I have used it very little, and have somehow never thought of using it for getting a sense of an area.  As the frost melted in the warming sun, my desire to attempt a different kind of “walk” grew.

Once my morning walk was over, and after I’d breakfasted, I hurried to the library (which has internet access much faster than my own) and began my stroll around the world.

Since I have lately put most of my thought into the Amos branch of the tree and their home at the Creeksea Ferry, I decided to begin elsewhere. A sense of place for the Thines family in Luxembourg has proven the most elusive, so I typed in “Hachiville.” I was disappointed to find no access to a street view feature there—plus that particular village had somehow accumulated the only cloud cover in all of Luxembourg on the day that the satellite photographed the country. However, I did accidentally discover a feature of satellite view that I had hitherto never seen. By playing around with those features in the top left corner of the screen, you can lay out the countryside as an expanse before you instead of looking straight down at it, and fly over it in any direction your heart desires.

Eastern Essex, on the other hand, is well covered in street view. After a pointless but charming little jaunt down the Champs Élysées, I spent a fair amount of time wandering the streets of Southend-on-Sea, Canewdon, and Maldon. Roaming the streets via Google has its drawbacks, I admit. For one, you are limited to just that—streets—and cannot take off down this pathway or down that beach. Were I really able to be there, I would be doing just that; this morning my walk along the river ended with a slippery scramble up the side of a hill, as is typical for me. But despite its not catering to my sense of adventure, Google street view really is the next best thing to being there.

No doubt to many of you the idea of using Google maps to acquaint yourself with an area is old news. However, there must be others of you who, like me, had not yet discovered its possibilities. For me, genealogy is about understanding my roots, and a huge part of that is achieving what I call a sense of place, a feeling for the environment of my ancestors. Naturally, Google maps cannot take you back to the time when your family inhabited a place, but you can walk the streets and see the layout of an area. With the aid of a few historical pictures and some imagination, you can create your own time machine.

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